Monday, January 4, 2021

Books Read in 2020 - Part III

Books, Part 3. We return to our regularly scheduled reading.


Microcosmographica Academica: Being a Guide for the Young Academic Politician (F.M. Cornford)

This is not so much a book as a slim essay, but it’s my list and I get to include what I want. First published in 1908 in Cambridge, England, it is a field guide to politics in the halls of higher education as it was practiced then and, frankly, not all that far from how it is practiced now. For a very select audience it will probably be very funny, and for everyone else it will be at best mystifying and at worst completely dull, but fortunately I am in the former category and I enjoyed this immensely.

Winter World (A.G. Riddle)

The world is getting colder and nobody knows why, but they’d better figure it out soon because the ice has already claimed a good portion of the planet and the freeze is accelerating. Meanwhile a space probe examining the sun makes a disturbing discovery shortly before it is destroyed, and when it transmits data back to the International Space Station that too is destroyed leaving one survivor – Commander Emma Matthews – adrift in space. Dr. James Sinclair – roboticist and general Flawed Hero – is sent out on a mission to investigate what the probe found and rescue Cmdr. Matthews along the way, and the rest of the book alternates chapters from their points of view. It’s a space thriller centered on humanity’s struggle to stay alive in a universe that is literally cold and unfeeling. There will be missions, adventures, and family drama both on Earth and in space, and much will happen before we reach a convenient stopping point for Volume 1 of the trilogy. It’s an entertaining story – not the deepest thing I’ve ever read, but it moves right along. This was a Father’s Day gift, because really books are pretty much my jam. I may get back to the other two volumes at some point.

The Last Monument (Michael C. Grumley)

This was the other book I got for Father’s Day. Despite being written and set in the present it is, at heart, a thriller straight from the 1970s, with escaped Nazis running around South America looking for gold and generally intruding into the lives of civilized people in nefarious ways, and there is something refreshing about that kind of throwback to a time when everyone agreed that Nazis were evil rat bastards, even if WWII happened so long ago now that Grumley has to explain who major figures like Hermann Goering actually were. Joe Rickards is an NTSB investigator called to the scene of a light aircraft crash outside of Denver that killed two very old men, neither of whom should have been flying in that kind of weather. When Rickards and his partner break the news to the passenger’s daughter – a university anthropologist named Angela Reed – it quickly becomes clear that nothing about this adds up. Throw in an assassin, a trip to Peru for Rickards and Reed, tales of Amazon explorers, Nazi gold, and US Army Monuments Men, and no small amount of third world corruption and elderly German cruelty, and it all turns into mayhem. Grumley is a self-published author and he writes pretty well – it moves along crisply despite the occasional undigested bit of research or passage that cries out for an editor – and he keeps things hopping right up to the ending, which leaves room for a sequel should he decide to go that route. It’s not the sort of book I usually read, but it was a fun and undemanding change.

Father Christmas’s Fake Beard (Terry Pratchett)

This is another in a slowly growing series of whimsical little essays aimed at young readers that Terry Pratchett wrote at some early point in his life and which are now being collected and published for a wider audience. This collection follows Dragons at Crumbling Castle and The Witch’s Vacuum Cleaner and, aside from being Christmas-themed, is much like the earlier volumes in presenting a number of well-illustrated, lightweight, and playful stories that make you wish Pratchett were still around to write more of, well, anything.

The Pursuit of William Abbey (Claire North)

William Abbey is a cursed man. An English doctor in a backcountry town in South Africa in 1884, he stood idly by as a black boy named Langa was brutally lynched by a white mob, for which the boy’s mother cursed him. The shade of the murdered boy would follow him at a walking pace, everywhere, without rest, and if Langa caught him then the person Abbey loved most would die. And then the process would start again. But every curse comes with a gift, and his has turned Abbey into a truth-teller. Whenever Langa is near enough Abbey has the ability to see the truth in the hearts of those nearby and is compelled to speak it – a compulsion that grows stronger to the point of madness as Langa gets nearer. From this comes a powerful meditation on truth, love, power, and the things humans do to one another in the name of all three. The story is told in a series of flashbacks from a front-line hospital in the World War I France of 1914 as Abbey tells his story to a young nurse who has her own mostly harmless secrets, as do we all. It takes Abbey through his life as first he seeks to find a cure for his curse, then becomes a pawn of those who find his curse useful to them – people who are able to protect him from Langa by constantly keeping him on the move – then second as he rebels in his own way against them. Along the way he finds a sort of love, perhaps, and a mad sort of vengeance against the world or maybe not. The lines between those things are never as clear as people want them to be. Claire North is rapidly turning into one of my new favorite authors, as she has a gift for thoughtful melancholy and compelling writing.

Night Watch (Sergei Lukyanenko)

In present-day Moscow there are the Others – not really human, not anymore, but watching over the humans in their own ways. They are divided into Light and Dark, Night Watch and Day Watch respectively, and the two sides have been at war for thousands of years. Their conduct is strictly regulated by the Treaty, and what follows is a sort of arcane and bloody cat and mouse game of espionage, thrust and counterthrust, layers within layers and plots within plots. Anton Gorodetsky is a Light Magician, a member of the Night Watch, and as world-weary a spy as ever fought any cold war. In the three loosely connected stories within this novel he finds himself fighting the Dark Magicians of the Day Watch while trapped in the web of plans laid out by his own boss in the Night Watch – a magician not averse to treating his staff as pawns in a much larger and more lethal chess game than Anton or his peers can see. The first two stories are centered around Anton’s efforts to bring new members into the Night Watch, with varying and not altogether clear degrees of success, while the last one is more about his chafing at it all. Lukyanenko is particularly fascinated by the boundaries between good and evil, how compromises can turn bad without warning, and how consequences reverberate through complex systems of relationships – neither his Dark nor his Light are particularly pure. This is, apparently, the first of a series and perhaps I will seek out some of the following volumes.

After Alice (Gregory Maguire)

Gregory Maguire has made his living retelling the stories of others, giving a new spin to classic fairy tales and old novels alike, and here he offers his contribution to the literature on Alice in Wonderland even if the original Alice remains offstage for most of the book. Ada Boyce is Alice’s friend – a clumsy, misshapen girl in an iron brace – who at the beginning of the novel is sent out to the Clowd household with a jar of marmalade, as much to give comfort to a family grieving the death of Alice’s mother as to get Ada out from underfoot at home. She is pursued by Miss Armstrong, her prim governess, whom she does not like. She runs into Lydia, Alice’s sister, on the banks of the river. She falls into Wonderland, in pursuit of Alice. From there the story divides – sometimes we follow Ada as she wanders through the nonsensical world of Wonderland below, always just behind Alice, meeting many of the familiar characters from Lewis Carroll’s original. Maguire is an epigrammatical writer whose style suits the studied weirdness of such a place. And sometimes we move through the surface story, as Lydia and Miss Armstrong search for the two girls in an uneasy alliance of women who really don’t like each other. They end up at the Clowds’ house, where Charles Darwin is visiting along with his American friend Mr. Winters and an escaped American slave named Siam (the year seems to be the early 1860s), and while the stories never quite touch they do reflect on each other in the same kind of skewed way that a funhouse mirror has. It’s not a novel where much happens, but it is a story well told.

Living In Italy: The Real Deal (Stef Smulder)

For reasons that he explains but never quite makes clear, Stef Smulders and his husband Nico decided to move from their native Netherlands to the wine region of OltrepĆ³ Pavese in northern Italy. Smulders was a graduate student in Pavia, unhappy with his lot, and the two of them fell in love with the area and decided they wanted to own a B&B there. Thus begins a long and generally entertaining story of their introduction to Italian culture – mostly the bureaucracy of government, the travails of contractors, and the ins and outs of getting to know their neighbors. Nothing comes easy or quickly in Italy – a country famous for wine, paperwork, inefficiency, and opinions – but they persist. They find a house that they can afford and plan to convert into their B&B. They find contractors. And they spend the next year working to get the contractors to do their jobs as they slowly acclimate to their new homes. They meet some lovely people along the way, and each short chapter is solidly written – you can tell this probably started out as a blog before being lightly edited into a self-published book, and somewhere along the line the original title (Surviving the Good Life, which remains for some reason emblazoned above the text on every right-hand page) gave way to the final one. As both an invitation and a warning for those thinking of moving to Italy, this is a fascinating and serviceable book. The B&B (“Villa i Due Padroni”) is apparently thriving, if the website given in the last chapter is to be credited, and good for them.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope (Claire North)

This is a story about memory, about a woman who cannot be remembered in a digital age that cannot forget. It’s a story about privacy, because if nobody can remember you then you are on your own but the app knows everything about you. And it’s a story about what happens when these things collide. People started forgetting about Hope Arden when she was a teenager – first her friends, then her teachers, then her family, until nobody knew she existed. If you met her you’d find her charming, and when she walks away and comes back a minute later you’d find her charming again with no memory of having ever seen her before. It’s hard to have a normal life when nobody remembers you exist, so Hope makes her way as a thief. The app Perfection is all the rage. It monitors everything about you, from your health to your spending habits to your internet browsing and your workout routine and it makes suggestions for you to follow until you are Perfect. You get points for following the suggestions and rewards for accumulating points. When the story opens Hope is at a major promotional event for Perfection, about to steal jewels off a princess’ neck, mostly it has to be said out of anger for what the app did to someone she liked. From this spins out an international tale of covert action, mind control, and late stage capitalism. She meets Byron and Gaugin, two operatives who may or may not be on opposite sides now but with a long history between them. She plays cat and mouse with Luca Evard, an Interpol agent who is trying to catch a thief. She gets to know the developer of Perfection – a woman being used by her brother, the marketing genius who made it what it is. And in the end Hope is the unknown force, there but leaving no trace in memory. The plot is intricate but fairly single-layer – as with all of the Claire North books I’ve read so far the cross-currents that make it complex and give it depth come from the tone and the characters themselves. North has a gift for creating people and situations that draw you in and are suffused with a thoughtful sort of melancholy, even as she provides action and dialogue to move the plot forward. Unlike Byron, Gaugin, or Luca, you will remember Hope Arden.

Day Watch (Sergei Lukyanenko)

The sequel to Night Watch is also presented as three separate stories, though the links between them are perhaps tighter than in the original. Here the stories are presented from the perspective of the Day Watch – the Dark Others who are the counterbalance to the Light Others of the Night Watch whom we met in the first book – and once again Lukyanenko’s overarching theme that Light and Dark are harder to separate than most people think comes to the fore. The Dark Others are similar in many ways to their opponents, though with a strong and cheerfully amoral libertarian streak that prizes individual freedom over community responsibilities in much the same casually cruel way that actual libertarians do, and where the boundaries between Light and Dark exist is an open question. The first story follows Alisa Donnikova, a Dark witch whom we met through Anton Gorodetsky’s eyes in Night Watch. Drained of her power, she is sent to a children’s camp for rest and recuperation, where she meets Igor Teplov, a colleague of Anton’s whom we’ve already met as well. They have forgotten each other and they fall in love, with results that will echo through the next two stories. The second story centers on Vitaly Rogoza, a Dark magician who cannot remember who he is or why he finds himself in Moscow. Linked to this is a talisman of immense power – Fafnir’s Talon – brought into Moscow by four Finnish stooges. Behind the scenes the leaders of the Day Watch and Night Watch – Zebulon and Gesar – play out their multilevel strategies, and in the third story the analogy to a chess game where the pieces are moved about, sacrificed, and taken off the board by masters unconcerned with the fates of individual pieces is made explicit. Igor is being brought to trial in front of the Inquisition in Prague. Anton will be the Light counsel. Edgar, a Dark magician, will be his opposition. But the intrigues and countermoves by Gesar and Zebulon run deep and in the end who can say who won?

Twilight Watch (Sergei Lukyanenko)

This final installment of the original Night Watch trilogy (there have been three more books since) is built like the others – three connected stories around a theme, in this case the question of whether an ordinary human can be converted into an Other. While the stories are told from Anton Gorodetsky’s perspective – the series is essentially the story of his maturing within the Night Watch – the lines between him and his opponents in the Day Watch and the Inquisition which keeps the peace between them are getting ever more blurred. The first story introduces the idea of turning humans into Others with a long undercover operation that sees Anton posing as a businessman in a largely empty (and mostly unfinished) luxury apartment complex after a series of worryingly specific warning letters arrives at the door of all three agencies. In the second, Anton and his family – his far more powerful wife Svetlana and their even more powerful toddler Nadiya – are vacationing in a small town outside of Moscow when he is called to investigate an unregistered witch in the nearby forest, an investigation which will trigger the final story involving the long-lost book with the specific instructions for how to turn humans into Others. This last story will see all three agencies put aside their differences briefly and send Anton hurtling across central Russia by train in search of a killer. Lukyanenko is a good writer who has been gifted with an excellent translator, and these are a lot of fun to read.

Santa Olivia (Jacqueline Carey)

There is a small town on the US/Mexican border that used to be called Santa Olivia, after its patron saint – a young girl in a blue dress. That was before the plague, before the US Army took over and isolated the town behind walls and patrols, before the shadowy El Segundo began launching raids on the town, before everyone living there was stripped of their American citizenship and treated as property, before the town was renamed Outpost. Into this comes a man who is not a man – a genetically modified warrior who can’t fear. He stays for a bit and then he goes, and this is not his story. This is a story about his daughter, Loup Garron, who grows up in Outpost with her mother and brother and eventually is orphaned and sent to live at the local church with the other orphans of the town. It’s about growing up with injustice and harassment and trying to fight back. It’s about being different from everyone around you and having to hide yourself to fit in. It’s about love and loss. And it’s about boxing. The base commander is a big fan of the sport and he promises a ticket out of Outpost to any local who can defeat the Army champion. It’s rigged, of course, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. Eventually, as you know pretty much from the moment she’s introduced, Loup will get in the ring herself. In many ways this is a simple coming of age story, with a grizzled old coach, a circle of friends, a sparring partner who starts as something of a jerk and remains that way though with depths revealed and a sort of friendship born, and a love interest. You can’t help but cast Clint Eastwood as the coach in your mind. But Carey’s writing is lush and it pulls you through the story, and the extra edge of Loup’s genetic inheritance moves it ever so slightly away from the reality we know today. This is the first half of a duology and it ends pretty much exactly in the middle of the story – a natural stopping point but one that you know isn’t the conclusion. Loup will be back, and Outpost will not be the same for it.

Saints Astray (Jacqueline Carey)

This picks up immediately after the events of Santa Olivia – it’s really the second half of one very long book – with Loup and Pilar having made it out of Outpost and careening across Mexico to meet some of the others like Loup and find out what the real story behind her kind actually is. From there it spins out into a globe-trotting tale of training, action, and justice, though really this is an R-rated YA novel focused on the coming of age of the protagonist, Loup Garron. She and Pilar become security guards for a high-profile international firm and we follow them through their training and their first few jobs. They end up working for a British pop band on an international tour. And in the end they return to the United States – a nation hollowed out by pandemic and rendered an international pariah by corruption and authoritarianism, which is pretty spot on for a book series published in 2009 and 2011 – in order to see justice done and correct the wrongs done to them. It is, in a sense, a fairly straightforward story – most of the characters are decent people underneath, even “Miguel fucking Garza” as he is invariably referred to, and it’s a single-layer plot of situation-crisis-resolution-repeat until you get to the end and Loup and Pilar return to Santa Olivia as you always knew they would. Carey’s writing pulls you along and for all the grim warnings it really is a rather upbeat and uplifting tale of justice served and humanity recognized.

The Office of Mercy (Ariel Djanikian)

Utilitarianism is a moral theory that, boiled down to its most basic principle, states that whatever increases happiness and reduces suffering is the right thing to do. This sounds good on first hearing, but if you follow the logic far enough it can produce some absolute horrors, particularly when it focuses on the idea of reducing suffering as the ultimate good and the judgments that follow from that decision. It can also produce some fairly didactic stories such as this debut novel. It’s set in a future North America where a crisis (not really explained until the end, and even then only briefly) has led to the creation of underground cities known as America-[Number]. America-Five, where this story is set, is the easternmost of them, the lower numbered Americas having met their sad and largely unexplained fate earlier. The people in these cities are effectively immortal, dedicated to a life of peace without suffering, and entirely confined to their cities. The Tribes outside they regard with a mixture of fear and pity because their lives seem to be nasty, brutish and short, and in an effort to reduce their suffering the cities feel it is entirely ethical to “sweep” the Tribes out of existence – to kill them as a way to end their suffering. Into this comes Natasha, who works in the Office of Mercy tasked with that mission. She has her doubts, and when she goes Outside on one of the sweeps and actually meets some of the Tribespeople she will begin to act on them. There’s a lot of explanation in this novel – telling rather than showing – and at times it verges on breathless romance novel territory, though the story plays out as a tragedy rather than the heroic adventure that so many post-apocalyptic stories do. This is an interesting idea that really needed another draft.

Lovely War (Julie Berry)

It’s 1942 and the Greek gods are at odds with each other in New York City. Hephaestus has caught his wife Aphrodite, the goddess of love, in a tryst with Ares, the god of war, and demands a trial. Instead, Aphrodite persuades him to let him tell a story – a story of James and Hazel from London, and Collette from Belgium, and Aubrey from New York, and how they meet and intertwine on the front lines of World War I. James is a soldier who sees Hazel – a pianist – at a dance shortly before he ships out to France in 1917. They spend a day together and fall helplessly in love and then are separated. Collette is a teenager when the war starts in 1914, caught in the brutality of the German assault on Belgium, one of the few survivors of her town. Aubrey, a black man from Harlem, is a jazz musician with big dreams and a confident smile that the virulent racism of the US cannot wipe from his face even as that racism is transferred unalloyed into the training camps and battlefields of France. It’s a story of love and race and war and death, and what it means to be human and how that is different from what it means to be a god. Berry writes with a loving melancholy and if, as is said, we are but playthings of the gods, perhaps that is not such a bad thing after all.

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It (KJ Parker)

I didn’t realize when I bought this that it was effectively the sequel to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, though both books are perfectly fine as stand-alone novels as there is very little overlap in characters or story. This one is set not too long after the end of Sixteen Ways. The siege of the City is still going on, and Notker is just trying to make a living as an actor and an impressionist – he does a pretty good job of imitating most of the movers and shakers in power, actually, particularly Lysimachus, the man who has actually been running things for the last time being. This, it turns out, is deemed a useful skill by a number of powerful men when Lysimachus is killed by a trebuchet stone and a replacement ruler is needed to keep the city going. But once in power – and eventually he will, in actual legal fact, become the new Emperor – Notker starts to get ideas of his own about how to run things. Throw in Hodda as his canny and unprincipled girlfriend (much to her dismay) and a rotating cast of fools, villains, heroes (generally short-lived) and useful tools, and you’ve got yourself a story of power and how it is used and shaped by those who wield it. As with Sixteen Ways, this is essentially the story of a charming rogue thrust into a position of power way above his station who uses his native intelligence and schemer’s cunning to make the best of things. Parker – the name Tom Holt uses for his less comic material – is a phenomenal writer and this is a lot of fun to read, even as you know it’s not going to end well. You just don’t know how it won’t end well, and that is enough suspense to keep anyone interested in a book this well written.

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